With the just completed exchange of spies between the United States and Russia, the media storm will undoubtedly soon disappear. Amid all the accounts of such arcana as steganography, brush passes, and dead drops, the fascination with Internet photos of a naked and sexy Anna Chapman, and tales of families of spies tending to their hydrangeas in the suburbs, there has been little attention to how similar trades occurred in the past.
Like many such trades in the past, this exchange is asymmetrical. The United States has sent ten Russian spies, nine of whom are professional officers of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the other, a naturalized American citizen from Peru, to Russia. The Russians have not freed any Americans, and certainly no professional CIA officers, in exchange. Instead, Russia released four Russians. While they all signed confessions to secure their releases, it is not clear that any of them actually spied for the United States. Igor V. Sutyagin, imprisoned as an American spy, has always denied the charge, and human rights groups have insisted that his conviction was deeply flawed and an effort to intimidate Russian scientists and limit even benign contacts with the West. One of the four was sentenced for spying for Britain, not the United States. The other two were imprisoned for spying for the United States, but the truth of those charges remains unknown, although it is possible that these latter three were important enough spies that the United States was willing to accept the unbalanced swap of ten for four.
One of the few “one of theirs for one of ours” trades was the 1962 exchange of KGB officer Rudolf Abel, caught and imprisoned after operating under a false identity in the United States, for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union. The British have occasionally swapped Russian illegals for British citizens, and there have been a handful of similar exchanges that involved spies from several countries.
Other American-Soviet exchanges were even more unbalanced than the current one. In May 1941, the FBI arrested Gayk Ovakimyan, an engineer working for the Soviet trading company Amtorg, as a Soviet spy, based on information from a KGB defector in Canada. Known as “the wily Armenian,” Ovakimyan was, in fact, chief of the KGB station in the United States. He claimed diplomatic immunity, but since Amtorg’s employees lacked official diplomatic status, he faced a lengthy prison term. The issue was resolved when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June. America supported Moscow’s war effort and offered to release Ovakimyan as part of a trade.
There were no real American spies in Soviet prisons in 1941 (America didn’t even have a foreign intelligence service at the time!), although there were thousands of Soviets imprisoned in the Gulag on false charges of working for the United States, Britain, and France. But the USSR did not even offer people falsely accused of being spies. Instead, the State Department asked that the Russian wives of a number of American journalists, long denied exit visas, be allowed to leave the USSR. In order to get Ovakimyan back the Soviets agreed to allow a few of the women to join their husbands in the United States. (Thoughtfully, the KGB then recruited several as spies and they carried out minor tasks for Soviet intelligence after they reached the United States.) Fortunately for Ovakimyan, his arrest by the FBI convinced Soviet authorities that he was not a Trotskyist traitor. He had been slated for recall and execution, but upon his return was promoted to general.
Just as skewed was the 1986 exchange of Soviet spies Karl and Hana Koecher for Anatoly Shcharansky (now known as Natan Sharansky, a prominent Israeli politician). The Koechers were real spies, professional officers of the Communist Czechoslovak intelligence service operating under KGB direction. Posing as dissidents and refugees from Communist oppression they gained American citizenship. Karl Koecher then managed to penetrate the CIA, winning a position as translator/analyst that he used to provide the KGB with highly valuable information. Hana, a stunning blonde, made Anna Chapman’s suggestive photos look like child’s play; she later boasted she had sex with numerous CIA and Pentagon employees, journalists, and one senator. The Koechers were members of the “Capitol Couples,” a club of swingers who met each weekend for group sex. Sharansky, for whom they were exchanged, had been arrested in 1977 on charges of spying for the United States and treason and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in Siberia. He was no spy at all but a courageous Jewish dissident and a painful thorn in the side of the Soviet establishment.